If I could pick any time to live in Cardiff, I would choose the 1870s. As one winces at the toe-curling attempts by today’s snake-oil salesmen to promote the city as “world class”, it is easy to forget that in its Victorian heyday Cardiff truly did have international standing as one of the planet’s quintessential nautical locations. In Shanghai and San Francisco, Buenos Aires and Bombay, Cape Town and Cairo, Liverpool and Le Havre, the restless sea-dogs of the oceans knew the dirty coal port on the Severn intimately; its prevailing winds, its tides, its currents, its docksides and its stamping grounds. So famed were Cardiff’s docklands that they came to be known by what had previously been a generic term for any wild port – Tiger Bay.
More than 50 years since it vanished into dust, for no better reason than it offended the ignorant, uptight, petit-bourgeois values of Cardiff’s rulers, Tiger Bay remains Cardiff’s greatest social achievement, the only area of the city ever to have had real urban potency, excitement and sophistication. Tiger Bay’s success was thanks to its unique racial mix, and this was built on overwhelmingly Welsh foundations. After the first Bute Dock opened in 1839, the earliest settlers on the hitherto uninhabited moors were from other parts of Wales, expert mariners from the small harbours and fishing villages of the west, familiar with the capricious Severn’s every eddy. They were soon followed by people from the Glamorgan valleys in search of work, having been evicted from their farms and cottages by industrialisation. Next were the skeletal Irish refugees from the Great Famine, shipped over by the Butes like human ballast to build docks and railways, undercut wages and scab on strikes. Then, into this Celtic cauldron came seamen from all parts of the globe, drawn to Cardiff as a ‘signing-on’ port where finding a ship was easy.
Ships would arrive empty with a skeleton crew, load a cargo of coal and recruit on the spot, from one of nearly 200 seamen’s boarding-houses on Bute Street and its side streets, or on ‘windy corner’ (the Bute Street/James Street junction) which heaved with rough-and-ready sailors loitering outside the Seamens’ Union office, or else out on the Pier Head, Cardiff’s boisterous, macho meat market where the ‘Pier Head Jump’, a potentially lethal leap from the dock walls onto the deck of a departing ship, was a rite of passage. Because the port was based on casual labour, regular employment depended on living close at hand. So discharged men would stay in the boarding houses between voyages and some made their home locally, interbreeding with Cardiff women to give Tiger Bay a medley of new genes. It is worth noting that had modern immigration controls been in place Tiger Bay could never have happened. Today’s Britain is an authoritarian nightmare of immigrant-prisons where people are locked up indefinitely without trial for daring to set foot on these much-invaded shores. But immigration controls are a relatively new phenomenon – the UK had none at all until 1905 – and were not an issue back in the 19th century when it was convenient for a Britain that was busy seizing half the planet by force to have a huge pool of available cheap labour.
Because of Wales’ abject position as an ‘internal colony’ fit only to be stripped of its resources, Cardiff had no import trade to speak of and was considered the ultimate ‘hard-up port’ and condemned as “the dumping ground of Europe” where men with no money washed up. They were signed on at the minimum rates to the financial advantage of the unscrupulous shipowners and the wily boarding-house masters, who took their cut in a notorious Cardiff process known as “crimping”. Thus the people who found themselves in Bute Street tended to come from those places where the Welsh steam coal was sent and where local opportunities were limited: from Scandinavia, from South America, from Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia, from Bengal and Gujarat (the first Muslim prayer site in the UK was built in Cardiff in 1880), from Greece, from China, from Russia and from the Caribbean; they hitched a ride to Tiger Bay on tramp ships returning for the next load of coal.
More than 50 nationalities were living cheek-by-jowl in Tiger Bay by the 1870s, making a cultural soup of infinite permutations and variety. And the Welsh roots which gave this broth its tasty stock happily blended the ingredients together because, contrary to the lie put about by opponents of Welsh autonomy, the Welsh language, culture and people are naturally inclusive and multicultural rather than insular and prejudiced. After all, having put up with uninvited visitors of the calibre of the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, a few Malays, Egyptians and Portugese made a pleasant change. In actual fact it was ‘British’ Cardiff out in the suburbs that bridled at Tiger Bay’s fecund hot-pot and began the racist demonising of the area via their mouthpieces the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo.
It wasn’t just mariners who crowded the teeming streets and intriguing warrens of Tiger Bay. There were the platoons of coal-blackened dockers: ‘tippers’ on the docksides, tipping the coal from the railway trucks into the ships’ holds; ‘trimmers’ on board the ships, making sure the coal was evenly spread; and ‘hobblers’ hanging around for the worst-paid casual work. There were the white-collar commuters pouring out of the two railway stations (Clarence Road and Bute Road) to fill ledgers in the offices of James Street, Bute Street, Bute Terrace and Mount Stuart Square. There were the railwaymen, the shipwrights, the canal folk, the sailmakers, the wood turners, the chandlers, the engineers, the foundrymen…and countless others beavering away in a host of trades along Collingdon Road, Cardiff’s sooty, tarry walk through pandemonium down the west side of the Bute West Dock, and on the marshes between the Glamorgan Canal and the Taff called the Dumballs, Cardiff’s first industrial zone.
Then there were the businessmen, the Cardiff shipowners and coal dealers of infamy, haggling, plotting and bargaining in the streets around the Pier Head and in their favourite taverns. Many of the cocky young bastards joshing and scamming at the Pier Head in the 1870s would go on to make the fortunes and pocket the peerages they craved out of Welsh coal, their brazen pursuit of self-advancement eventually earning Cardiff the unflattering tag of “the city of dreadful knights” – a pun on the popular Victorian poem City of Dreadful Night.
In those exhilarating years when sail and steam and wood and iron co-existed, creating a spectacular scene of semi-organised and highly dangerous chaos in the docks, across the bay and out into the Severn, Cardiff ship-owning was in its infancy. Big cargoes were mostly carried by vessels belonging to other ports while the smaller local sloops and schooners dealt with the Severn coastal trade and pilotage. But the thrusting new breed of Cardiff capitalist would soon change that and by 1900 Cardiff was one of the leading tramp shipping centres of the world with nearly 100 separate shipping companies. Those were the days before the oceans had been turned to lifeless deserts, so Cardiff also had a substantial fishing fleet; the trawlers of Neale & West a familiar sight, being unloaded of hake and haddock at their West Dock wharfs or pitching over the breakers in the bay, heading for the high seas. From the Pier Head passenger services and excursions ploughed off to Bristol, Ireland, France and the resorts of Somerset and Devon, while tug boats beetled everywhere, nudging vessels into the docks or dragging them out to deep water when they were weatherbound by westerly gales. This really was the place to act out that ancient human longing to “run away to sea” – and the saunter down Bute Street, kit-bag swinging, a salt-laden Severn drizzle in the air, past the retired sea captains’ parrots squawking obscenities from their cages on the cast-iron balconies, and on to the enticing seas and skies was the start of countless adventures, forever lost to posterity.
Swarming with humanity 24 hours a day, Tiger Bay, above all, was a social experience. The ships-that-pass-in-the-night transience, the guarantee of chance encounters and the extreme plurality and diversity combined to deliver a default live-for-the-moment culture. Here, you could live as you wanted, you could be yourself. Out on a limb geographically and closer to the Atlantic swells beckoning beyond Penarth Head than the starched conformity of town, Tiger Bay was steeped in the promise of limitless possibilities. For the only time (so far), the authentic liberal urban aesthetic was actualised in Cardiff, decades before it became codified from Harlem to Berlin. Sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll a century later was but a puerile posture when measured against Tiger Bay’s salacious hedonism. Hardly a back room or cellar was not taken up by some nefarious activity, from the villainous to the transcendental. Gambling dives, illicit liquor clubs, opium dens and brothels abounded, the world’s music drifted out of doorways and almost every other building was a café or a pub.
Although Moroccans brought the sweet smell of hashish from Casablanca to Bute Street long before its use became widespread in Europe during the Jazz Age, Tiger Bay’s mood-modifier of choice was always alcohol – naturally, given the dominant presence of the traditionally epic drinkers of the merchant navy. The pubs of Tiger Bay have gone into folklore. Bute Street alone had nearly 50 on its long, straight descent to the Pier Head. The prospect of rollicking, rip-roaring nights in the Anglesea, the Cape Horn, the Baltimore or the Rothesay Castle warmed the heart of many a mariner lashed to a mast in a South Atlantic gale. The Custom House, the Quebec, the Pier, the Dowlais and the Packet were universities of life for generations of Cardiffians dipping a toe into Sin City and valleys’ boys biting off more than they could chew on the pub crawl to end all pub crawls. Of the whole multi-faceted rainbow of Bute Street pubs only the Packet survives today, and the White Hart in James Street is the solitary survivor in wider Butetown. Not one of the myriad backstreet pubs was replaced when Tiger Bay was demolished, and where once stood the briny watering holes of Bute Crescent and Stuart Street, roaring with tall tales and songs of the sea, is now occupied by the facetious ephemera and dreary customer transactions of Mermaid Quay. This is not an improvement.
Of course there was suffering, squalor, pimping, poverty, early death, disease, robbery, violence, tragedies and broken dreams. How could there not be, when people are involved? But the perplexing mysteries, the layered complexities and the infinite serendipities which unfolded for over a century in this captivating city by the sea, to a symphonic soundtrack of rumbling wagons, creaking hulls, screeching metal, thudding coal shutes and melancholy fog horns, made the stroll down Bute Street towards the sea the most exciting walk in the world and Tiger Bay as fine a place as there has ever been. Incredibly, Cardiff threw it all away.
Butetown was taken over by the City Council in 1948 when the Butes, having made their trillions, quit Wales. Given the powers by the Town & Country Planning Act of 1947, the Council chose complete demolition rather than the perfectly feasible option of renovation, which their own survey found to be much cheaper than new build. The solid, spacious homes with their back gardens and wealth of original features are precisely the kind of Victorian property most sought after in cities today, but Cardiff’s dismal councillors (Tory until 1958 when Labour took control of Cardiff for the first time) couldn’t see beyond their visceral loathing of Tiger Bay and all it represented. A toxic combination of masons, martinets, matrons and morons, a rag-bag of barely suppressed anxieties and prejudices about sexuality, race and class, opted for complete annihilation under the guise of “slum clearance”. The bulldozers began their work in Loudoun Square in 1959 and by 1970 a grim council estate had covered the area, exhibiting all the faults which have subsequently made 1960s architecture so universally condemned: big, drab, alien multi-storey blocks built in the cheapest materials with no concession made to human scale, privacy or visual appeal, whipping up a micro-climate of whirlwinds in the barren communal areas beneath them and militating against any possibility of street life and interaction. City Architect John Dryburgh (1919-1988) delivered an especially bad version of the debased modernism that was all the rage at the time and even as early as 1967 the whole redevelopment was getting a critical panning as a misconceived and botched disaster. It was too late: the thriving community, never considered or consulted, had been ripped apart and dispersed out to remote new estates at Llanrumney, Caerau and Fairwater. Rather than clearing a slum, the Council had pulled off the difficult trick of manufacturing one from scratch.
Through its long, lingering death throes, Tiger Bay was given a rousing send off by discerning Cardiffians who still headed there, from the Quebec down to the Casablanca, for the city’s only bohemian, liberated and cosmopolitan ambience even as all around lay a post-industrial landscape of unmatched dereliction. Many summers ago, must have been around 1972, I was home from uni for the holidays and found myself drifting down Bute Street to the Pier Head one hot August afternoon, magnetically drawn by the tangible smack of transgression (I was a rebellious little sod). There, in an abandoned building open to the sky and the circling herring gulls, still a teenager, I had my transformative Tiger Bay moment, an archetypal dockland experience straight out of the pages of Melville, Hemingway or Genet. From a distance of nearly 40 years those joyful deviant hours in the sun are scoured into my memory. Oh yes, Tiger Bay was life-changing, I can assure you.